Saturday, 17 October 2020

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: ANONYMOUS ANIMALS

ANONYMOUS ANIMALS (2020)

Starring: Thierry Marcos, AurĂ©lien Chilarski, Pauline Guilpain

Writer: Baptiste Rouveure

Director: Baptiste Rouveure

The roles of humans and animals are reversed in a series of vignettes which focus on the experiences of those held captive in a rural area. Humans are treated as animals would be, by humanoids with animal heads. As the blurb for this movie states, "Who and what are these people?".

Well, in answer to that question, I'd have to say that those people are us as a human race. And we don't come off well in Anonymous Animals in terms of our general concern for animal welfare. An anthropomorphic bull proves to be more than happy to over use a cattle prod. The life of a human puppy for its dog owner turns very dark, very quickly. There's far worse to come.

All of this plays out with absolutely no dialogue and only the occasional grunt/growl/neigh from the creatures in charge and this approach works superbly, immersing the viewer in the world of the animal, unable to comprehend what's going on around them, almost constantly afraid. The low camera angles force participation in the most terrifying of sequences and there's no let up across its 64 minutes.

To be honest, the running time of just over an hour is perfectly judged. The intensity of the piece is such that I was exhausted by the end. On one hand, I'm not sure I could have taken much more of the unrelenting grimness and on the other hand the overriding message doesn't have to be hammered home any more than it is. As an aside, if you can take more and are looking for a companion piece, I recommend Melanie Light's excellent short The Herd.

Which brings me to the message. For those of us who have any concern about how animals are treated, this will stir up our feelings and leave us examining our own lifestyle choices. It could possibly be viewed as vegan propaganda and although I do see that viewpoint I don't think it's quite as clear cut as that. As for those of us who didn't care about this before, will this film at least give them pause for thought? I'm not entirely sure.

For a film with such bleak subject matter, its look is stunningly beautiful by contrast, with gorgeous russet tones infusing the shots of the attractive woodland settings. Even the shots of the rundown farm's exteriors find the attractiveness in the shabby, a world away from the cold reality happening just yards away in its buildings. 

The imagery is often striking, particularly the stag who happens to be the gamekeeper, patrolling the area, double-barrelled shotgun in hand. The ongoing thread about the dog was, for me, the most chillingly effective, the sense of hopelessness building as the revelation I'd be fearing came to be. It's a draining, distressing sequence with an abrupt, brutal conclusion that had me in tears.

The experimental approach of Anonymous Animals pays off handsomely and its absence of expositional talk only serves to heighten the nightmarish quality of the situations on display. The lack of subtext may leave some viewers battered by the message but Baptiste Rouveure has made a morally charged, challenging film that will linger uncomfortably in the memory. As a genre movie, it delivers true, unfiltered horror that will provoke discussion. A tough watch, no doubt, but it should be seen.

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: BRUISER

BRUISER (2020)

Starring: Dustin Whitehead, Callan White, Jeff Benninghofen

Writers: John Mark Nail, Joshua Russell, Dustin Whitehead

Director: John Mark Nail


Small time criminal Jack Rose (Whitehead) is the reliable go-to man for local shady businessman Harry (Benninghofen) and this profitable sideline helps to keep the small motel run by Jack's father afloat. When a lucrative job involving smuggled cargo presents itself, Jack accepts without realising what the cargo is and how dangerous it will turn out to be for both him and everyone else around him...

The opening sequence of Bruiser is a masterclass in how to introduce the bulk of the protagonists in the most economical and entertaining way possible as we swirl around the parking lot of the motel seeing how the lives of these people overlap. It also establishes the link between Jack and Harry and their far from easy going relationship, which will be tested to its extreme as matter spin out of control.

Co-writer Dustin Whitehead is outstanding in the lead, initially coming across as little more than a thug for hire but soon revealing a much more caring side in his dealings with his father and stepmother then the inner conflict which comes from being involved in a criminal enterprise far more disreputable than his usual work but one whose financial side could solve a lot of problems. What he doesn't realise is the profoundly serious problem that is about to be caused by crossing the wrong people.

The supporting cast is just as quirky and impressive. Jeff Benninghofen is both charming and quietly menacing as Harry, who is happy to chat with a customer about the plants he's selling one minute and then ordering Jack to beat the crap out of someone the next. Callan White is excellent as Dina, helping to run the hotel in her own pleasant but no-nonsense way. 

Also, watch for the eerily brilliant Colin Wasmund as the character credited only as The Time Keepin' Man. This is someone extremely focused on his job, right down to the exact lines of dialogue he will say, in the fashion he chooses to say them, in the situations in which he will deliberately place himself. This act is crafted to fashion a veneer of forgettable mundanity over the terrifying man underneath, an ice-cold killer with a particularly horrible M.O.

Bruiser is an adroit mix of the brutal, the blackly comic and the surprisingly tender. Scenes of the motel's inhabitants sharing their days with each other - one specific sequence involving an outdoor picnic is genuinely heartwarming - rub up against beatings, shootings and stabbings with nary a misstep. A few surreal moments are thrown into the mix too and these fit the offbeat tone rather well.

The time taken to get to know the protagonists and the various little idiosyncrasies of theirs we're shown means the violence around them hits all the harder because we care about these strange folks. They may be classed as lowlifes but there's a curious decency to them even if their earnings don't always come by the most legal of means. This leads to moments where we're dreading what we might find behind that closed door or around the next corner. The build of tension is expertly constructed and almost unbearable on occasion.

Fans of thrillers should make a beeline for Bruiser. Its unconventional spin on many classic thriller tropes makes for an experience which hits all of its targets in terms of offbeat humour and grimy, down and dirty violence. It also packs an unexpectedly emotional punch, especially in terms of the bittersweet ending which sums up the unstinting lack of sentimentality in John Mark Nail's cracking crime story. For me, this is easily one of the films of the year in its genre and you should rush to see it.

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: A SAVAGE NATURE

A SAVAGE NATURE (2020)

Starring: Joanna Whicker, Steve Polites, Jon Hudson Odom

Writers: Paul Awad, Kathryn O'Sullivan

Director: Paul Awad

Lonely waitress Beth Walker (Whicker) is trying to make the best of her life in a quiet corner of Virginia. Her Afghanistan-veteran-turned-law-enforcer husband Pete (Polites) isn't the easiest person to live with but she's determined to make their marriage work. Beth has an unpleasant encounter with a couple of unsavoury types in the diner where she works but doesn't want Pete to know about it. This may not turn out to be the smartest decision ever when said unsavoury types turn up at their door later - and it's not to join the couple for dinner...

Starting out as a quintessential thriller set-up, complete with frail looking but potentially plucky heroine running up against some very bad guys, A Savage Nature then heads towards typical home invasion horror territory. So far, so sweetly assembled, putting everything in place for the expected battle for survival to play out when...well, I'm not going to tell you what the twist is here but it's a damn good one and all bets are off, let just leave it at that.

A Savage Nature's small cast means that the story can explore all of the characters in more detail than most genre pieces. Beth is given the most depth, as you'd expect, but the villainous pairing of Doug (Odom) and J.B. (Joseph Carlson) portrays them beyond just a couple of felons, hinting at a partnership that's endured more than a few bumps in the road. As the taciturn Pete, Polites is excellent at playing a guy whose military experiences have left him almost completely unable to express himself even though he knows this is damaging his marriage.

Of course, due praise, and much of it, must be given to the terrific Joanna Whicker, whose portrayal of Beth twists and turns with the plot as we discover she's a much more complex person than the timid waitress we first encounter in the diner. As with almost everyone in the story, she's hiding something and as the varying traits of her personality come to light it's testament to Whicker's performance that all of the shifts seem extremely plausible.

The screenplay, by Paul Awad and Kathryn O'Sullivan, contains not only that artfully crafted, aforementioned twist but several other rug pulling moments in which you're sure you're one step ahead of the plot only to find you're not. Once the action kicks into gear, the level of suspense continues to wind up and the only thing you can be certain of is that, for some of the folks featured, it's not going to end well.

A Savage Nature, in keeping with its title, does explode into effective bursts of violence from time to time but these are kept brief and the emphasis is firmly on building tension or adding another brain twisting layer to the plot. As the climax nears, that usual feeling of knowing who's going to walk out alive and who isn't is far less dependable for the viewer. Given the preceding events, you'll probably be waiting for one final, nasty surprise to throw you for a loop. Does it happen? Again, I'd be spoiling your enjoyment if I divulged any further information.

A slick, efficient, well-written thriller with a slew of savvy performances and, of course, the point where I actually said "Ooh, that's a twist" out loud as I was watching it, A Savage Nature delivers its pared down, keyed up goods with aplomb.

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: TAKING THE FALL

TAKING THE FALL (2020)

Starring: Munro Chambers, Roland Buck III, Katie Gill

Writer: Steven Hellman

Director: Josh Marble


Released from a six-year stretch in prison for possession of marijuana, Tyler (Chambers) is met by best buddy Justin (Buck III) and taken to a place that's been rented specially. Tyler is expecting a night of catching up and getting drunk with Justin but he soon finds out that the other friends in their group are joining them too for a dinner party.

What starts off as a somewhat awkward reunion party becomes increasingly fraught as Tyler discovers the people he left behind all those years ago are struggling with their jobs, relationships, finances and an increasingly difficult pursuit of happiness. Even so, it's hardly comparable with spending six years behind bars, right?

The focus of Josh Marble's film - the struggles of a particular generation - has been covered before but Steven Hellman's script rings with truth and the piece is anchored by accomplished performances from Munro Chambers and Roland Buck III. The former nails the awkwardness of a man finding himself not only dropped back into normal society but immediately having to deal with the social group he was torn from. The latter is charming and fun as the best friend who doesn't allow the baggage of millennial culture to weigh him down.

There's initial amusement to be from Tyler being out of the loop for so long - he can't get his head around the popularity of yoga, for instance - before the second act settles into a more dramatic groove as the guests arrive. Tyler and Justin's other close male friend Pete works in a well-paid job which he hates but tolerates because he was given the role by the father of his partner Michelle.

Then there's Allison, a single mother who shows up with daughter Selena (and Selena might just be more together than the mother). Finally, there's Kate (played by the wonderfully named Avalon Penrose) with whom Tyler was romantically involved. Six years down the line, however, she's moved on and she's now with Zachary (Jonathan Dylan King) who doesn't seem to be in any hurry to find gainful employment and is more interested in brewing his own craft lager.

It's clear that long-simmering tensions - or in the case of Tyler and Zachary, freshly-minted tensions from an instant dislike - will come to the fore but none of the flashpoints are overplayed even when the past is revisited and we're given the details of how Tyler ended up doing time. Ensemble pieces such as these can end up in screaming matches and destroyed relationships because it's the showy thing to do. Taking The Fall gives the histrionics a swerve; its confrontations are effective because they're more measured and authentic.

At the end of it all, there are no easy answers provided but there is hope for those who won't settle for their lot in life. It's an idealistic stance but, set against the drudgery of the current existence of many of its characters, what is there to lose? In terms of the ongoing friendships of the various characters, there's a feeling that nothing is final in spite of the evening's events and the tale will continue in its messy way long after the credits have rolled.

You may get the feeling you have seen similar films of Taking The Fall before and it's fair to say that you probably have, but this particular effort is worth sticking with for its well-observed writing and accomplished performances. Perhaps you'll be glad that you haven't scored an invitation to this dinner party but it's intriguing to be on the outside looking in.

Friday, 16 October 2020

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: MIDNIGHT RUN

MIDNIGHT RUN (2020)

Starring: Alex Santana, Justin Huff, Alejandro Agudelo

Writer: Richard Hernandez

Director: Richard Hernandez


As a Halloween party breaks up, best friends Bryan (Santana) and Felix (Huff) decide not to wait for a possible ride home that may never materialise and set off on the long walk there instead. This instantly proves to be a bad idea as they are set upon and robbed by a gang of masked skaters. Now the two friends need to find the skaters and get their stuff back, encountering the odd characters who inhabit River City as they attempt to complete their seemingly impossible quest in the dead of night.

With the tunes of DJ Santiago (Gilbert Carranza) soundtracking the pals' journey across the suburbs and chapter headings signalling the next stage of their episodic adventures, this feels like a less violent and destructive GTA side quest combined with a reversed, low-speed take on Vanishing Point. In addition, a mysterious and oddly helpful stranger called Joe (Agudelo) shows up to assist in their mission. This stranger seems to be anything but to the residents of River City and it would seem that he has his own unfinished business to take care of.

Writer/director Richard Hernandez' zero budget feature - that's right, the budget for this one was ZERO dollars - quickly establishes a living, breathing, nocturnal community across East LA, replete with characters of varying viewpoints regarding what's morally and legally right and wrong. For some, revenge is not the answer. For others, it's all about shooting some bloke with a BB gun.

For the most part, Midnight Run is more a study of two guys who are forced to examine their long friendship in the strangest of circumstances. Their pursuit of retribution is helped and hindered by their own history and their possible future, a future which may split the two of them as Bryan has designs on leaving town and joining the Army. Unsurprisingly, there's a large amount of rethinking to be done as they get ever closer to the skate gang. That's when they've come down from the painkillers they've taken and the accompanying trippy back projection has ceased.

If you like your movies to nestle neatly into a specific genre pigeonhole, this one's going to give you a headache. There are many comedic moments but there's also a decent helping of drama and even a smattering of thriller elements, balancing all of these rather nicely. You even get a helping of action courtesy of a chase between a car and a skateboard and there's the opportunity to chill out with a brief musical intermission courtesy of the aforementioned DJ Santiago.

Santana and Huff are convincing as best friends, bickering amusingly over next to nothing for a lot of time but clearly having the other's back when the chips are down. These two heroes are pleasingly unheroic, having few ideas about how to get their possessions back and generally making random decisions on a wing and a prayer. Just like the rest of us, really.

Agudelo's character is something of an enigma and we're only given hints of his past, which is fun as we don't ever truly know if he's on the level regardless of his altruistic offer to help two guys he hasn't even met before. He's on a collision course with one specific resident of River City but again the facts behind the bad blood between them are left tantalisingly unsaid. If you need your exposition detailed and your plot threads tied tight, you may be left wanting. Me? I thought the opportunity to fill in the gaps - or just settle with leaving matters obscure - was all part of the enjoyment.

Midnight Run is its own beast, a film that isn't always concerned with its structure or its forward momentum. It does pretty much what it wants to do, when it wants to and if you're not willing to go with it you'll only end up frustrated. There are sections in the film where the two lead characters don't even feature, shifting the focus to the supporting players for a while. This might slow the action a little but it also paints a richer picture of the neighbourhood.

The patchwork nature of the story does result in the work feeling a touch disjointed on a couple of occasions but Midnight Run is never less than interesting because there's a genuine air of not knowing what the hell is going to happen next. Even when you're expecting a huge reveal and nothing happens, it's still fun. And it was made for no dollars. Imagine what Richard Hernandez could make if someone threw a couple of hundred bucks at him. I jest, but there's a serious point to be made here - I firmly believe this filmmaker could give us something even more out of the ordinary with a decent budget.

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: LIKE LOVE

LIKE LOVE (2020)

Starring: Lily Yasuda, Joseph Bricker, Kelly Barber

Writer: Lily Yasuda

Director: Michael Wolfe

When waitress Harper (Yasuda) breaks up with boyfriend Jude after discovering he's slept with one of her friends and colleagues, she also has to find a new place to live. Finding a perfect place to relocate in the home of Jackson (Bricker), she's offered a room at a ridiculously low rental price despite her semi-unintentional efforts to embarrass Jackson into throwing her out.

Over the next few weeks, the friendship between Jackson and Harper blossoms. Jackson has thoughts of taking things to the next level but Harper isn't particularly interested in a relationship, may never have been previously, and may never will. How could this situation possibly work itself out? You may think you know where this is going but just hold on a moment...

Like Love may position itself as a next gen "When Harry Met Sally", right down to the video interviews with other partnerships at regular intervals, but it has a wit and charm all of its own. This doesn't fall over itself attempting to engineer zingers, allowing the laughs to develop more naturally and not constantly checking its gags per minute ratio. This is a comedy that is confident enough to know it doesn't need to make its audience roll in the aisles all the time.

As for its protagonist, I would suggest that Harper is adorable but if that character were looking over my shoulder as I type this she would be advising me, in no uncertain terms, to delete that description. She is, though. And yet, even though you'll be siding with her instantly because of the situation with her cheating boyfriend, the plot lets you know pretty soon afterwards that your heroine is probably not the easiest person to be around, especially in a relationship. She's drifted into the whole situation as a matter of convenience and now she's kicking out at everything about it - and, by extension, Jude - that irritates her.

It's surprising that she doesn't throw Jackson through a window too because she discovers that he's one of "the love people", a man who believes in soulmates and all of that idiotic, idealistic crap. However, their shared sense of fun, despite and maybe because of their differences, is what brings them together. Of course, these are exactly the same things that could tear them apart.

Lily Yasuda is perfect as Harper, exactly the sort of person you would love to have as a friend. She's strong, smart, hilarious, modest and can shoot a world-class withering look. She's also the kind of buddy you could suddenly find yourself falling in love with at the drop of a hat, which is her new housemate's issue almost from the get-go.

Bricker is an excellent foil as Jackson, allowing Yasuda to bag most of the choice lines but still carving out an engaging character of his own. Jackson may have the well-to-do parents which afford him his chilled, leisurely lifestyle but he's a nice guy. Even when he's causing the largest amount of strife for Harper, it's still because he's trying to be a nice guy.

The screenplay, also by Yasuda, opts for a steady stream of lower-key chuckles than going for the overblown, ridiculous and highly improbable set pieces which many romantic comedies can't resist throwing in just to establish its wacky credentials. It's all the better for it and allows for nicely-timed shifts into the dramatic without it ever feeling like that point you reach in more mainstream efforts where you can check your watch and think "Getting near the end, it's going to have to get serious now".

Yes, there are lessons, and characters do learn, but no one is totally transformed at the end of this one. Life is often messy and this film offers no magical solution to its thorny relationship problems. Its refusal to tie up many of the story's loose ends might frustrate but if you've been following the previous seventy-odd minutes then the ending should come as no surprise. You can't reach the end of Like Love and say "Well, that wouldn't have happened".

This may not turn those romcom tropes on their heads completely but it certainly gives them a more than noticeable tilt. Of course, most viewers will be looking for a happy ending but as the story plays out, you'll be questioning more as more what actually would constitute one of those. This is down to the clever writing and playing, Lily Yasuda dominating the film with her striking but resolutely unshowy performance. Whatever she appears in next, take my money, I want to see it. 

Love Life is very much like its main character; sharp, witty, spiky on the outside but with a surprisingly sweet centre. For all of you out there looking at those folks in relationships and thinking "Just what is the point?", you have a new champion and her name is Harper. I think you'll enjoy spending time with her as much as I did and you should definitely make the necessary commitment.

SPIRIT OF INDEPENDENCE 2020: DAY X

DAY X (TAG X) (2019)

Starring: Carina Diesing, Tobias Kay, Reinhard Paul Seyer

Writers: Manuel Weiss, Jessica Renelt

Director: Manuel Weiss

Widow Tanja (Diesing) suddenly begins to receive strange phone calls and then notices a shadowy figure across the road from her house. Matters escalate when Tanja's daughter Lilly goes missing and a disturbing secret from the past comes to light, which may be connected with the disappearance of another young girl five years previously...

A slow burner that takes at least some of the essence of Scandi-noir and takes it on a trip to Germany, Manuel Weiss' doomy thriller opens just at the point of something dreadful happening and then rewinds a few days to allow for an unhurried set-up in which we see how Tanja is attempting to cope with the loss of her husband. Things are obviously not helped in the slightest by her potential stalker and she's pushed towards the edge of sanity once Lilly is abducted.

On hand to investigate is Kommissar Schwarz (Kay), a caring detective who wants to solve the crime because, of course, he's a cop, but he also thinks that Tanja has had more than enough trauma in her life up to this point. However, with no obvious clues and the shadow of the previous unsolved case hanging over the department, he's under his own stresses too.

Wisely, the most disturbing plot developments are kept off screen as the story heads to some particularly dark places in its second act, introducing characters who may be key to the investigation or will function as just another layer of obfuscation - or both. The script plays upon the obvious parallels between the crimes of the present and the past but takes the proceedings in a less than obvious direction.

The expected cat and mouse between the various protagonists does take place but not in the usual "evil genius versus dogged cop" way. Tag X places a great deal of emphasis upoon the everyday, whether it's the crimes themselves or the effects on those touched by them. It's less of a procedural than a study of the psychological breakdown of the investigators, the victims and the perpetrators so if you're looking for scene after scene in conference rooms with cops sticking Post-Its to board, those are in very short supply.

The pace may be a touch languid but the hopelessness which suffuses the situation is well crafted and even the smallest breaks in the case provide no easy answers, leading to a final act which will no doubt divide due to its chillingly prosaic conclusion. There's no breathless pursuit of suspects, no race against time and little in the way of relief for its audience, ending abruptly and leaving the viewer to deal with its ramifications long after the end credits have rolled.

With so many thrillers of this ilk fighting for space in the genre as movies and longer-form TV series it's easy for the lower-budgeted and less marketed titles such as Tag X to get lost in the shuffle and although it's by no means a game changer it doesn't deserve to be confined to be bin of obscurity either. It's committed to the dark path it follows and for those of us who don't mind spending an hour and a half or so in such a murky world it's undoubtedly watchable and occasionally gripping in its own sobering way.